Inner Catholic Got Out
My inner Catholic escaped today. I attended the funeral mass of a local man whose wife attends the church I serve. Theirs was one of those wonderful agreements to live within two faith communities: Covenant and Catholic. I officiated at the marriage of one daughter and buried the wife’s mother. He would occasionally attend worship here and she would join him there. His funeral today was there; at the Mission of Santa Barbara.
After the organ prelude, two acolytes processed from the front of the sanctuary, one carrying a Christ candle and the other a cross. The two robed priests followed them, leading the family members to the back of the church, where the casket sat next to the big baptismal font. The American flag was removed from the casket and the priest took a brass stick that dipped into the baptismal font. He then announced to the congregation that Tom entered the Christian life through the waters of baptism and now his baptism is complete. With that he sprinkled the casket three times with the water.
Then the priest gave the casket pall (a linen covering embroidered with a cross) to the women to cover the casket. The organ began to play and the acolytes led the pallbearers with the casket, followed by the priest and family to the front of the church. After the opening prayer, the priest invited the widow to come with her family and enter Tom’s name in the book of life, which catalogues the deaths of parishoners.
Why did it touch me so much? What hit me so hard was how this service acknowledged the body and honored it within worship. The Evangelical tradition in the West Coast avoids the body, almost fearing its presence. What we do is privately bury the body as a family ritual (often without the pastor) and then conduct a memorial service to the loved one’s life with slides and videos, songs and testimonies. All that is not wrong, per se, except in the avoidance of the body and the reality of death. Our culture today does not even use the word “die” but instead talk of someone’s “passing”, which seem so much nicer and neater, like passing the bread from one diner to another.
I like rituals that are handed down over generations with meaning and not invented new at every occasion. I like being part of a deeper stream. That’s one of the reasons why the four church gathering here in Montecito, called the M-4 (Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian and Covenant) allow me access to these richer heritages.